Thursday 20 June 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'With political friends like these, who really needs enemies?'

Political friendship is like life-saving. If it looks like the person you're saving will drag you down, you let them go, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Hail fellow: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to TDs Kate O’Connell and Maria Bailey. Photo: Damien Eagers
Hail fellow: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to TDs Kate O’Connell and Maria Bailey. Photo: Damien Eagers

Near where my son lives in Italy, within a rectangular stone plaque, high on a garden wall, is inscribed elegantly, formally, the dedication all'Amicizia: to friendship. A local woman told me it has been there for centuries.

The first time I saw it, the inscription was a breeze on a still day loaded with the brain-crushing heat of Italy in July. On each visit since, I imagine the craftsmen chiselling the words into the stone, wonder about the proprietor who ordered it, the events and people in their life that inspired this intriguing dedication.

Above all, it is defiant. A shout from the distant past into the long future saying "Hey, you. This - this - is what matters."

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It is only in a crisis, or when life and luck seem to be conspiring against us, that any of us knows, truly, who our friends are. When our world falls apart through illness or betrayal or sheer bad luck, there are those who stay and those who go. The stayers are the keepers. The others? Not au revoir but adieu.

As my children grew up in world of virtual friends and likes, I drilled them in the belief that if they have even a handful of good friends, they have the makings of a good life. And I did it by example. They saw many acquaintances, people with whom we got on well. But there were only a handful of true friends, the older the better.

In the fallout of the Maria Bailey interview, chiselled into the memory and credulity of listeners, Miriam Lord's column had a mention of something otherwise ignored.

It was the PR consultant Paul Allen's public assertion that he was a good friend of Maria Bailey's family, and also of Maria Bailey herself. In the article, he says it was because of that friendship he accompanied the TD to the RTE studio.

In a week when Maria Bailey's political colleagues and ''friends'' were retreating from her like the Dothraki remnants before the armies of the Night King, the mention was intriguing. Some might say, ''yes, fair play to him, he was a friend when the politician was in need''. Others might take the view that the interview was so exquisitely and spectacularly bad - less a car-crash, more a convoy of mega-trucks obliterating the last descendants of Bambi and Rudolph, live on air - that declaring personal friendship with the politician, by then regarded even by her own party, her political "friends", as being in an advanced state of reputational and optical leprosy, was better than declaring professional consultation and advice.

Regardless, Maria Bailey was fabulously, publicly abandoned by her colleagues and ''friends''. No sooner was she off the air than her sister-in-arms, Together for Yes, Trust Women ''friend'' Kate O'Connell TD had removed her as her profile picture from her Facebook. She is not a 15-year-old girl. She is a legislator. But like measles, Political Contagion was abroad and Deputy O'Connell, strong on vaccination, was having none of it.

Likewise, colleague and ''friend'' Minister Simon Harris took a break from supervising Crimean carnage on several fronts of the health service, to appear with a face so perfectly po, it has to be practised. The Bailey interview was regrettable, the main issue for him, apparently, being that the Taoiseach hadn't been told about it.

This is not to defend Maria Bailey. That an adult in Bailey's circumstances, a then-councillor now legislator, would claim to require supervision and a set of instructions to use a swing (the hint is in the title) is preposterous.

And this is also not to judge her: for the TD personally, for Fine Gael and for politics as practised, the issues raised by her case are serious and consequential. Any person in Ireland issuing a Civil Bill in the Circuit Court must lodge an affidavit of verification, effectively confirming that the contents of that Bill are true and accurate. In all cases, if such an affidavit is found to be false, it is an offence punishable with a sentence of up to seven years, a fine or both.

In the context of something potentially so grave for the TD personally, and for politics generally, it is regrettable, but also notable, that Fine Gael and its leading lights' chief concern has been their own reputation, both collective and individual.

From the public point of view, I believe there are relatively few people - and mercifully - who would consider, what anyone in those circumstances could be facing, with something approaching sly pleasure, gotcha or glee.

If we have lived any life at all, we have made our own mistakes, some of them probably whoppers. As members of the public, we live with the hope that our biggest mistake, our single catastrophic move, will not define us in perpetuity. This is because we hope for some humanity, a measure of insight that says ''yes, that was a bad decision and they learned from it - but look, there is also good there''.

Politics, however, is a very different animal. Especially today, when we seem to have reached a new plane of government by optics, social-media reach, marketing decree, focused not on the public and their problems but on the party and its ''popularity'' and survival. Anything that threatens this is anathema. The recent elections show that as a strategy it is working. In their votes, people largely ignored the crises in housing, homelessness, hospital consultants, waiting lists and the abandonment of our carers.

My own view is that the calculated ''messaged'' vapidity of this strategy renders it incapable of understanding, never mind addressing, the very human crises in all of the above, equally, the quantum changes necessary to address climate and the difficult lives of the working poor.

Just last week a woman in her early 40s, a mother of two children, with severe pain due to arthritis has had to give up her two cleaning jobs as she faces a two-year wait to see a consultant. Now for my money, those are the injuries, that is the physical deterioration caused by the wait, that should be challenged and compensated.

Equally, until we have a functioning, democratic health service suitable for a republic, all those running for the Dail and Seanad should have to surrender their private health cover so they have to live - or suffer or die - within the system they have instituted and excuse.

Back in the political system, it is said that Jackie Kennedy and JFK used to joke about the saying, ''be careful when people are patting you on the back, they're looking for the soft spot to stick the knife in''. Having worked in politics for 25 years, I would say the Kennedy advice is pretty good.

Working through heaves and coups and a few butter-knives raised against Caesar, I don't know how politicians manage, psychologically, in the fathomless shallows of hail-fellow-well-met "good man/good woman; we'll wave the palms to Jerusalem for you today and howl for our new VBF Barabbas tomorrow; oh and nothing personal, you were very good to me; no hard feelings; it's just politics, as you know."

In modern politics, instead of a veritable Band of Brothers and Sisters, it is now every man and woman for themselves. A steady home or personal life have to be essential, with politicians realising that the love and loyalty of political friends are not just movable feasts, they are more likely to exist across the aisle than they are in parties themselves.

In that sense, across the Atlantic, the friendship between the Obamas and the Bushes has been something to see. Seated together at the Trump inauguration, President Bush's observation "that was some weird s**t" capturing a sense of their friendship and the dismay of half the world.

But perhaps the shallow, brutal, cynical world of modern politics was ever thus.

In 1912, writing in Italian in the Trieste newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera, James Joyce addressed the dismantling of the political and personal life of the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' in an article called The Shade of Parnell.

"In his last proud appeal to his people, he implored his fellow-countrymen not to throw him to the English wolves howling around him. It redounds to the honour of his fellow-countrymen that they did not fail that desperate appeal...

"They did not throw him to the English wolves - they tore him apart themselves."

All'Amicizia.

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